Indigenous Success Stories

Sports and Reconciliation (87-91)

Skateboarding saved me — now I’m giving back

June 21, 2023

‘There was the hard-ass, raised on the rez thing, and there was skateboarding, which was like family’

CBC News: My reserve, Maskwacis, is 15 km from Wetaskiwin, which is a neighbouring town. All the older guys would skate to town. I was so young that I couldn’t stand on the board yet, but I’m knee boarding right behind them. I remember getting picked up by someone and they said: “Whaaaat are you doing?” They ended up bringing me to my mom.  “Marilyn, your kid is knee boarding to town again.”  And so eventually I was like, I’ve got to stand up on this thing because this is what the other guys are doing. I very much was an impressionable kid growing up. I just wanted to be accepted by the older guys.

The first time I saw asphalt on the rez, I was like WHOOAH! In front of the new bingo hall, they made a little parking area, which to us was just like a playground. We were trying to ollie up the curb; it was a big deal.

They ended up hiring security for us on the reserve. My late uncle from Johnson Security, he thought we were little terrors. There were actual bad things going on the reserve, but we were the easy target. We just wanted a place to skateboard.

So eventually, my mom said “Son, go and get a petition going.” I had no idea what a petition was. I would go to the hockey rink, to the grocery store, the corner store. I ended up getting close to 700 names of people who were backing this idea to get a skateboard park. I approached the head of parks and recreation and said, “If you don’t want us skating here, then build us something.”  Back then I was a little political activist. I was advocating for something. And it was partly because of my mom who said “This is how you get stuff done”.

photo: Maggie Macphersonphoto: Maggie Macpherson 

Whenever one of our little skate posse of kids had a birthday party, we all jumped in the van and hit Century Skate Park in Edmonton. My reserve approached the people who built Century. They came and before you knew it they built a 10-foot vert ramp with a six-foot half pipe, and a four-footer beside it. I could see from my house where the ramps were being built. So I literally just showed up and I’m the annoying little kid, watching them do everything.

I said, “I’m the reason why you guys came, basically.” And they were so cool. I formed a friendship with all those other guys. They had a backyard bowl in Edmonton. They had a skate scene, which back then was amazing. I felt accepted by these older people. That’s just how skateboarding was back then.

There was the hardass, being raised on the rez type of thing. And then there was this layer of just skateboarding, which was like a family. I carry that to this day. What they taught me, I’m paying that forward.

Our non-profit, Nations Skate Youth, it’s crazy how full circle it’s come.

The kids, the majority of them, what we are doing is just being ourselves and creating a space for them to eventually be themselves too.

By our actions and by our story and by being just our truest selves, we shed layers with some of the youth that normally a parent or guardian or a foster parent wouldn’t be able to.

Once we break down this little wall that they’ve built, then we get to figure out what really makes them tick. We get certain actions, like they’re smiling, they’re overjoyed. They are all these things. Their parents are going, “Wow. I’ve never seen them actually do this before.”

It applies to anything that you present to the youth – it could be hockey, it could be ballet. Skateboarding is one avenue and it’s such a rich culture. You may not be the best at it when you first start, but there are so many positive avenues. You could film it, make the edits, you could make the clothing, you could build the ramps. The actual culture of skateboarding has saved so many people just like myself. And so I like to spread that message.

And there is no discrimination. There’s no rulebook. There are no teammates. And there is no other skateboarder out there who skates exactly like that youth.

photo: Ty Jamesphoto: Ty James 

We like to show them that it’s very much inclusive. I didn’t have that growing up. I had to put it down, pick it up. I treated my skateboard like a boomerang. When I didn’t like it and life wasn’t going my way, I’d throw that thing as far away as I could. I’d be like, “Oh, I used to skate.” And about a year later I would pick up a board again. It was like the boomerang. It would come back to me just as I threw it. A lot of people growing up throw that away and it never comes back to them. I’m very, very fortunate to be able to have it still in my life and be able to do the work that I’m doing.

I almost walked away from my non-profit. I was just taking on too much. I was seriously looking at a crack toke and I was thinking about ways of justifying a slip. That’s just me, catching the trigger and knowing that I need to resource myself. I didn’t realize that I was actually chipping away at what I had built for myself. So, yeah, I came close there a couple of times. 

Dad was very much raised the old way. He tried to limit my skateboard time but I was ahead of him. I used to put my actual skateboard where the bus would pick us up in the morning. So I would leave the house and I would have my old beater board and he’d be like, “Hey, what are you doing with that?” He would totally call me on it. I was in town school then. So there was a skate scene there.  Back in the Eighties, even when I didn’t own a skateboard, I was drawn to it because it was such a hardcore culture in my eyes.

My dad groomed me to become a hockey player. So, you know, cod liver oil first thing in the morning. He was training me. He had a boxing gym in the basement. He was training me because he missed the boat.

I wanted to become an NHL hockey player. I was brainwashed to think that all the scouts go to residential school and that’s where you come up.  So I’m like, “Whose ass do I have to kick? Where do I have to go? What do I have to do in order to get there?”

I remember looking at three brochures for three separate residential schools, and I only wanted to know who was the  winningest. I don’t care who was whatever…but who’s the best? It just so happened at the time to be the Lebret Eagles. And so I’m like, “I’m an Eagle!”  I was so driven, but I had no idea what I was getting myself Joel Dufresne

photo: Joel Dufresne

I ended up going to the residential school and quickly realized that there was about a thousand other kids just like me. Bigger, stronger, faster. But my skateboard? I had it with me the entire time in residential school. Because I was considered somewhat of an elite athlete for the school, they allowed it.

I needed a lock just for my skateboard. They could steal my hockey equipment because I could get that replaced, but my skateboard? I had to put it in a separate locker to protect it because everybody wanted to take it.

There were no ramps. We’d jam a 4×8 piece of plywood up against the wall and there’s our ramp. We were just trying. We were just skating. Whatever. You’re a child, basically.

I would run away from the school. They called it AWOLing. I was so good at it, no one was going to catch me. And in the prairie, you could see them coming for miles. Regina was the closest city to where I was in Lebret. It was the Qu’apelle Valley. I remember having my skateboard and getting to Regina and seeing another skateboarder who was not Indigenous. I was constantly looking out for a white van or the police because they’re looking for AWOL kids.

So I remember running up and meeting this skateboarder who was a lot older than me. I started crying and I was just like, “Dude, You gotta hide me!” The guy had a truck. He was a farm kid. So we jump in his truck and I end up just crying and laying low. And this guy ends up taking me to his farm and he’s got a mini ramp in his garage and he’s got this scene and he’s drinking beer, smoking and I thought, this is amazing. Your dad let you do this?

Anytime I would take off from that school, every time I got caught, whoever was in charge of being on the lookout for us had to clean up the mess we made. So I was never having to take any accountability because they wanted me on that ice, you know? I didn’t attend any classes. You had to have a 60 per cent-plus grade average in order to step foot on that rink, so teachers were giving me my grades in order for me to play.

And this is supposed to prepare me for the future?

When you’re in these systems, you’re growing up in a kids jail, basically. You’re not coming out of there ready to live. If anything, it gave me extra street smarts. They taught me how to take a punch and throw a punch. How to stick up for myself.

It’s something a child shouldn’t have to go through. You’re just trying to be a kid, you know?

There were moments later where, sure, I was sponsored, I was getting free gear, but I wasn’t holding up my end of the bargain. I wasn’t documenting my skill or what I was capable of doing. That’s just something that I had to shake off. It takes a while to be able to accept who you are, that you’re being given all this support for something that you’re good at, you know? 

Eventually reality hits. Until then I made a mess anywhere I went. If I had a promise to appear, I’m out! If I got arrested, I skipped town. You can only do that for so long. I ended up making a big mess, that I had to show up for. It just led to a life of crime and throw in some addiction and some unresolved childhood trauma in there, and abandonment issues, you name it.

My dad got it pretty bad in residential school. His abuse and violence was just something that … I didn’t know any better. I’m still working on it. This is a forever thing. I’m still an addict. I think heroin’s great. I just can’t do it anymore. I can’t function under alcohol anymore. I had to grow out of that way of life. I wasn’t going anywhere. I was very blessed to have guardian angels, my guides and ancestors being there for me when the moments of,you know, those moments.

photo: TJ Rak

photo: TJ Rak

Chief Poundmaker, he is the reason. He’s sitting here beside me. Every day I speak with him, I speak directly to the Creator and I smudge and I ask for guidance. The closer I get in my relationship with the Creator, having all my ancestors beside me, it’s like rubbing a genie’s lamp and asking for wishes. As long as you’re putting in that work and you’re being 100 per cent true with your ancestors, that stuff comes true.

If you dig deep enough, they listen. The Creator listens. You’ve got your great, great great whoever behind you right now. Beside you. Backing you. Backing up the work you’re doing and making sure that you’re 100.  Sometimes you got to ask for a little advice here and there. Show me a sign or whatever it is. For me, it’s just being in constant contact with my ancestors.

Poundmaker, he very much is speaking. I’m like a middle man with the work I’m doing now. I used to hesitate and question everything. I don’t fight that feeling anymore. So that’s just coming directly through my ancestors. Having Poundmaker as an ancestor is a blessing.

By Joe Buffalo for CBC Sports.  

Top, large image photo credit: Maggie Macpherson